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Tribal Purge

YOU KNOW LOCAL, EASTSIDE STATE Senator Gloria Romero, right? The feisty Democratic majority leader in the California Senate? The highest-ranking woman in the state Legislature? Ardent defender of civil liberties, consumers, workers, minorities? Fearless reformer of prisons and rogue police forces? Great.

Now you can add another title: Gloria Romero, faithful in-the-bag servant of wealthy gambling interests.

Romero has written and is carrying an onerous piece of legislation titled “Unlawful Entry: Tribal Land” that would allow California Indian tribes to issue stiff fines against non-tribal members entering what are called “Indian Lands.” The uninitiated here might be scratching their heads asking: Exactly what problem does this bill solve? Aren’t “non-tribal members” just the usual endless flow of pasty-faced patsies hurriedly tooling through the rez eagerly trying to get to the slot machines? Or has there been some unreported invasion of Indian holdings by a Palm Springs cattle-rustling gang?

Hardly. What the tribes are worried about are, in fact, their own members — members who have been booted out of the clan and who still live on the rez or might want to visit family members who do. Booted out, by the way, because the tribal bosses don’t want to share juicy gambling revenues with them. Some of these “disenrolled” members are now among the strongest voices opposing Romero’s bill — arguing that it will be one more cudgel that gambling tribes will use to whip up their profit rates. The result, they say, will be hundreds of the disenrolled getting evicted from their homes, and then banned from visiting relatives who stay behind.

Paranoia? I don’t think so. The casino-owning Pechanga tribe in the Temecula area, for example, has purged some 400 members since 2004, about one-third of its population. And why not? The monthly stipend handed out to enrolled members from casino profits has reportedly doubled since then, now topping out at a handsome $30,000 per month per person. The Pechanga purge was a nasty, Sopranos-like affair — digging up relatives’ graves and scanning the remains for DNA. The tribe hired an independent consultant to oversee the probe and authenticate tribal bloodlines. But when his report revealed that those on the purge list were, indeed, authentic Pechanga Indians, his recommendations and findings were simply ignored and dozens of families lost their income — and their heritage — anyway.

It’s not just the Pechangas who are shaving down the tribal rolls and increasing their own payouts. The Enterprise Rancheria tribe kicked out a third of its 200 members in a 2003 dispute. A few months ago, the Jamul tribe, near San Diego, flattened the homes of two non-tribal families that were in the way of a casino construction site. Statewide, an estimated 3,000 Indians have lost their tribal status since the gambling boom of 2000.

Now, thanks to Romero’s efforts, the hapless members who have been cut off the tribal vig may now get literally tossed right out of their homes. “This bill as written will abuse the civil rights of both tribal and non-tribal citizens,” Cheryl Schmit, of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California, told the Weekly.

Romero, like a deck full of other Democrats (and numerous Republicans), is an eager recipient of campaign contributions from the Pechangas, the Agua Caliente, the Morongo and other powerful gambling tribes (she’s also a recipient of contributions from local card clubs). Her voting record shows that a reliable 75 percent of the time Romero votes for tribal gambling interests.

The Pechangas, meanwhile, recently had a peace-offering lunch with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. Also present were representatives of three of the other four wealthy tribes that are seeking expansion of their current casino operations. The expansion — the largest in recent history — would grant 22,000 new slot machines to a handful of tribes already swimming in hundreds of millions per year in gaming revenue. The agreements already passed the state Senate but have been hung up in the Assembly under pressure from unions who seek a neutrality pledge from the virulently anti-labor tribes.

The word coming out of that powwow between Núñez and the Indian chiefs is that Mr. Speaker has obediently sipped the Kool-Aid, or smoked the pipe, if you prefer. After agreeing with the tribes that ratification of their deals was starting to move closer, he reportedly got on a conference call with statewide labor leaders and told them, essentially, no dice. Labor’s demand for more freedom to organize the growing (and low-paid) casino work force is going to be cashed out in the dealmaking between the tribes and the Democrats.

So there you have it. This might be the onset of another lazy, laid-back summer. But don’t think for one moment that our Democrats aren’t up in Sacramento tirelessly fighting for the little guys. Yeah, right.

For more on this article, including reader opinions, visit Marc Cooper's blog.


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